THE WANING DAYS OF RISK ASSESSMENT
New HUD Requirements Regarding Home Inspections & Radon Testing On February
23, 2004, thirty days after their January announcement, the U.S. Department of
Housing and Urban Development will begin requiring two new documents to be distributed
to every applicant for an FHA mortgage. The first document, revised HUD Form 92564-CN
is entitled, “For Your Protection: Get a Home Inspection.” In addition
to explaining to the mortgagee why a buyer needs a home inspection and clarifying
the distinction between a home inspection and an appraisal, this form now clearly
discloses that “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Surgeon
General have recommended that ALL houses should be tested for radon” and
explains, “As with a home inspection, if you decide to test for radon, you
may do so before signing your contract, or you may do so after signing the contract
as long as your contract states the sale of the home depends on your satisfaction
with the results of the radon test.” At the bottom of the document, the
Mortgagee must initial whether he has chosen or not chosen to have a home inspection
performed and provide date and signature documenting that he has carefully read
the notice, understands the importance of an independent inspection and that FHA
will not perform a home inspection nor guarantee the price or condition of the
property. The second document, “HUD Mortgagee Letter 2004-04” fully
explains that all mortgages will be required to submit the signed form above and
proudly proclaims, “The Department of Housing and Urban Development through
FHA continues to be responsive to public safety concerns by informing Mortgagees
and borrowers of the Environmental Protection Agency and Surgeon General’s
recommendation for radon testing. The revised form incorporates radon testing
as one of the components of a home inspection.” The letter goes on to reiterate
that the signed form MUST be submitted to FHA with the lender’s request
for insurance endorsement. WHAT THE NEW HUD MORTGAGEE NOTICES MEAN TO HOME INSPECTORS
Some legal advisors have long recommended that professional home inspectors require
a signed acknowledgment that the home buyer was presented with written disclosure
of EPA's radon test recommendation. The argument has been that since the inspector
is aware the recommendation applies to ALL home buyers, he has a duty to disclose
it. The new HUD Mortgage Letter and Form may add more importance to the inspector
obtaining a signed radon recommendation disclosure statement from every client.
Will Government Service Entities (FANNIE and FREDDIE) as well as traditional mortgage
underwriters follow HUD’s lead in order to obtain conforming loan packages
that can easily be bought or sold? AARST and ARPC expect to pursue this. HUD Form
92564-CN clearly recommends that for their protection, all purchasers should get
a home inspection. According to the Mortgagee Letter, the form “incorporates
radon testing as one of the components of a home inspection.” The Mortgagee
is to initial by their choice to have or not to have a home inspection; it does
not provide the same choice for a radon test. To avoid any inference that the
inspection included a radon test in the event the purchaser declined, it may be
imperative for the inspector to obtain a signed radon disclosure that acknowledges
From: Environmental Research Foundation
Date: 28 May 1999
=======================Electronic Edition======================== . . . RACHEL'S
ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY #652 . . ---May 27, 1999--- . . HEADLINES: .
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THE WANING DAYS OF RISK ASSESSMENT
Risk assessment is a decision-making technique that first came into use during
the presidency of Jimmy Carter, who was trained as a nuclear engineer. At its
best, risk assessment is an honest attempt to find a rational basis for decisions,
by analyzing the available scientific evidence. In theory it is still an attractive
ideal -- to make rational decisions based on scientific evidence -- because
in principle it should allow diverse parties to agree on what needs to be done.
However, 20 years of actual practice have badly tarnished the ideal of risk
assessment and have sullied the reputation of many a risk assessor.
History of Risk Assessment
During the late 1960s it slowly became clear that many modern technologies
had far surpassed human understanding, giving rise to byproducts that were dangerous,
long-lived, and completely unanticipated. A book-length report issued by the
White House in 1965 began with a letter signed by President Lyndon Johnson,
who said, "Ours is a nation of affluence. But the technology that has permitted
our affluence spews out vast quantities of wastes and spent products that pollute
our air, poison our waters, and even impair our ability to feed ourselves."
The 1965 White House report identified numerous major sources of environmental
contamination: municipal and industrial sewage, animal wastes, municipal solid
wastes, mining wastes, and "unintentional releases," which included
automobile exhausts, smoke stack emissions, pesticidal mists, and agricultural
chemicals draining into waterways, among others. The main report contained "subpanel
reports" on soil contamination, the potential for global warming by carbon
dioxide, the effects of chlorinating wastes, the health effects of environmental
pollution, and "the effects of pollutants on organisms other than man."
In 1969, the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare issued another
book-length report on "Pesticides and Their Relationship to Environmental
Health." The report said, "Recent evidence indicates our need to be
concerned about the unintentional effects of pesticides on various life forms
within the environment and on human health. It is becoming increasingly apparent
that the benefits of using pesticides must be considered in the context of the
present and potential risks of pesticide usage. Sound judgments must be made."
Therefore by the mid-1970s it was obvious even to journalists and politicians
that industrial technology had a massive dark side. Technical mastery of natural
forces was leading not to safety and well being but to a careless and accelerating
dispersal of dangerous poisons into the biosphere with consequences impossible
During the 1970s, in response to a decade of disturbing reports and revelations,
a vast "environmental movement" developed, made up of citizens concerned
about one place or another -- their dinner table, the playground in their neighborhood,
the river running through their town (often the source of their drinking water).
They demanded reforms. Congress reacted by writing laws the size of a telephone
book and by creating new agencies and departments to issue enforceable regulations.
As all the early official reports make clear, in those days environmental contamination
was viewed through the twin lenses of engineering and traditional toxicology.
Traditional toxicology maintains that "the dose makes the poison"
-- meaning that everything is poisonous at a high enough dose, and you can prevent
poisoning by giving a low enough dose. The engineer seeks to develop a numerical
formula that will give the desired result time after time.
Blended together, these views gave rise to the idea that the nation merely
needed to set numerical "standards" for the discharge of industrial
poisons into the environment. The world's capacity to absorb toxicants would
be discovered by scientific analysis, toxicologists would determine the safe
dose, and engineers would fine tune the nation's industrial apparatus to deliver
just that dose and no more. At least that was the theory.
Unfortunately, there was one key element missing from this prescription: pollution
pays handsomely. In the short run, corporations that dump their toxic wastes
into a river, or bury them in the ground, make much more money than corporations
that sequester and detoxify their wastes at great expense. Therefore, a political
struggle of enormous proportions ensued. On one side, the petrochemical giants
(such as Dow, DuPont, and Monsanto) were by then producing an array of profitable
new products -- polymers, plastics, pesticides. On the other side, an alarmed
citizenry demanded safety. This got translated into "safe doses."
In response to the new laws and regulations, governments at all levels geared
up to make "sound judgments" inside this political pressure cooker.
Under these circumstances, "risk assessment" seemed like a way to
rationalize government decision-making, instead of allowing bureaucrats to make
arbitrary choices: gather the necessary data, ask a group of impartial experts
to interpret it, and render a sound judgment. What could be more reasonable?
Unfortunately, it did not work out. In the first place, as we shall see, the
necessary data are not available, even today. In the second place, the traditional
toxicological assumptions did not hold up under scrutiny. For many poisons,
there is no safe dose. And finally, impartial experts are almost never impartial.
Someone is paying their hefty fee and that someone often gets the benefit of
the doubt when it comes time to interpret whatever data is available. Experts
can be bought, it turns out.
In 1995, after risk assessment had been refined for 20 years, three well-known
and well-respected risk assessors working for the California Department of Environmental
Protection -- Anna Fan, Robert Howd, and Brian Davis -- published a detailed
summary of the status of risk assessment. In it, they pointed out:
** There is no agreement on which tests to use to determine whether someone's
immune system has been damaged;
** There is no agreement on which tests should be used to assess damage to
the nervous system;
** There is no agreement -- and there may never be -- on ways to test for genetic
Without agreement on test methods, people cannot agree on which data to include
in a risk assessment. Under these circumstances, different risk assessors will
select the data that they believe is relevant and they will usually reach different
conclusions -- often VASTLY different conclusions.
Furthermore Fan, Howd and Davis point out that
** Genetic damage is a non-threshold event. That is, any amount of a gene-damaging
substance can cause damage. Only zero is safe. If such damage occurs in a germ
cell, it may be inherited by successive generations.
** Damage to the reproductive system is a non-threshold event. Any exposure
to a reproductive toxin may cause damage. Furthermore, a single exposure may
have lifelong effects. The only safe dose is zero.
** Likewise, damage to the developmental system is a non-threshold event. A
single exposure by an effective toxin may cause damage and such an exposure
may have lifelong effects. Only zero is safe.
** Cancer is a non-threshold event. Any exposure to certain carcinogens may
initiate a sequence that results in cancer. The only safe exposure is zero.
There are other problems with risk assessments:
** Science has no way to analyze the effects of multiple exposures, and almost
all modern humans are routinely subjected to multiple exposures: pesticides;
automobile exhaust; dioxins in meat, fish and dairy products; prescription drugs;
tobacco smoke; food additives; ultraviolet sunlight passing through the earth's
damaged ozone shield; and so on. Determining the cumulative effect of these
insults is a scientific impossibility, so most risk assessors simply exclude
these inconvenient realities. But the resulting risk assessment is bogus.
** According to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which in 1983
published the official formula for conducting a risk assessment, risk assessments
are supposed to take into account the special characteristics of the population
at risk: Are they obese? Is their diet adequate? Do they suffer from chronic
disorders like asthma, diabetes, or arthritis? Are they very young or very old?
Are they pregnant? Do they eat unusual quantities of contaminated foods, such
as cheese or fish? Most risk assessors simply ignore this NAS requirement for
examining the characteristics of a population.
** Risk assessment, it is now clear, promises what it cannot deliver, and so
is misleading at best and fraudulent at worst. It pretends to provide a rational
assessment of "risk" or "safety" but it can do no such thing
because the required data are simply not available, nor are standardized methods
of interpretation. Science, as a way of knowing, has strict limits and risk
assessment encompasses a set of problems too complex for science to solve. As
Fan, Howd and Davis acknowledge, risk assessment is not a science, it is an
art, combining data gathered by scientific methods with a large dose of judgment.
Judgment is not reproducible from laboratory to laboratory so different risk
assessors reach different conclusions, often based on who's paying.
** Risk assessment is inherently an undemocratic process because most people
cannot understand the data, the calculations, or the basis for the risk assessor's
Now after 20 years, the public is catching on, that risk assessment has been
a failure and in many cases a scam. Rather than allowing citizens to reach agreement
on what's best, it has provided a patina of "scientific objectivity"
that powerful corporations have used to justify continued contamination of the
environment. With a few rare exceptions (sulfur dioxide emissions, for example)
dangerous discharges have increased geometrically during the period when risk
assessment has been the dominant mode of decision-making. It is now obvious
to most people that risk assessment is a key part of the problem, not an important
part of any solution.
In place of risk assessment, a new paradigm is ripening: the principle of precautionary
action. The precautionary principle acknowledges that we are ignorant about
many important aspects of the environment and human health. It acknowledges
scientific uncertainty and guides our actions in response to it. The precautionary
"When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment,
precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships
are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an
activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. [See REHW
"The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed
and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve
an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action."
The basic idea? Make decisions based on familiar maxims: An ounce of prevention
is worth a pound of cure. Look before you leap. Better safe than sorry. Do unto
others as you would have others do unto you.
This is not rocket science. Definitely not rocket science.
--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 John W. Tukey and others, RESTORING THE QUALITY OF OUR ENVIRONMENT (Washington,
D.C.: The White House, November 1965).
 Emil M. Mrak and others, REPORT OF THE SECRETARY'S COMMISSION ON PESTICIDES
AND THEIR RELATIONSHIP TO ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH, PARTS I AND II (Washington,
D.C.: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, December 1969).
 A. Fan, R. Howd, and B. Davis, "Risk Assessment of Environmental Chemicals,"
ANNUAL REVIEW OF PHARMACOLOGY AND TOXICOLOGY Vol. 35 (1995), pgs. 341-368.
 National Academy of Sciences, RISK ASSESSMENT IN THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT:
MANAGING THE PROCESS (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1983).
Descriptor terms: history of risk assessment; precautionary principle;
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